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Benjamin Horgan

Discerning Sanctity: De Smet and the Ethics behind the Jesuit Mission to the Lakota Sioux

Oral presentation

As the Catholic Church spread to the North America, missionaries were called to discern the sanctity of native peoples and their traditional religions. The Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, was one of several religious orders that accepted Native Americans as worthy recipients of the Gospel and established missions to promulgate the Catholic faith among various tribes, including the Lakota Sioux. Historian Ross Enochs, author of The Jesuit Mission to the Lakota Sioux: A Study of Pastoral Ministry, 1886-1945, asserts that the Jesuits built their mission to the Lakota by adapting the content of Catholicism to the form of traditional Lakota religion and culture. This thesis offers a critique of Enochs’s assessment by examining the Jesuits’ evolving discernment of the natural and supernatural qualities of traditional Lakota religion and culture. In contrast to Enochs’s argument, this thesis contends that the Jesuit missionaries such as Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., utilized the natural aspects of the Lakota culture to enhance the individual’s susceptibility to and belief in Christianity. The first chapter surveys the history of the Jesuits’ discernment of the sacred and profane within Lakota culture and religion. The second chapter illuminates the Jesuits’ formation in Aristotelian virtue ethics as the primary instrument used in the missionary discernment of the natural and supernatural virtues of the native peoples. This thesis closes with a third chapter proposing that the Jesuits’ discernment of Lakota virtue leads to three distinct missionary outcomes: cultural adaptation, dogmatic accommodation, religious inculturation.

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